Back in the day—no, even before that—there was a rowdy saloon on the corner of Stuart and Tremont streets, in Boston’s Theatre District, called the Knickerbocker Cafe. This was in the early 1950s, and the Knickerbocker was a favorite of the hordes of sailors from the Navy Yard who flooded the Theatre District nightly. They liked it because the club had a great house band, Fat Man Robinson’s quintet (later expanded to sextet), and one of its stars was the tenor saxophonist Andy McGhee.
McGhee, who died October 12, 2017 at age 89, came to Boston in 1945 to attend the New England Conservatory. He studied with Sam Marcus, a saxophonist and dance band leader, and later the president of AFM Local 9. McGhee graduated from the NEC Diploma Program in 1949. The comment accompanying his photo in his senior class yearbook read, “Will be on the road and with a first-rate band before you know it!”
In later years, McGhee downplayed his activity outside of school, but he was among the galaxy of future jazz stars around town in the late 1940s, a cluster that included Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Sam Rivers, and Joe Gordon. McGhee logged time in the big bands of fellow student Bernard Moore, Roxbury pianist Hopeton Johnson, and finally the fabled Boston Beboppers of Jimmie Martin.
The adventurous guitarist and composer John Abercrombie couldn’t get enough of the organ trio. He had a lifelong love affair with them, starting in Boston in 1967, and he had trio dates scheduled at the time of his death on August 22, 2017. This post surveys those Boston beginnings and his ongoing enthusiasm for the jazz organ.
Boston was where Abercrombie soaked up influences and interests that stayed with him for decades. He spent eight formative years there, from 1962 to 1970, and his attraction to organ trios took hold then. He took his first steps on the national stage in one in 1967.
Although he was a student at Berklee, Abercrombie was quite active on the local scene. He used the city as one big woodshed. He played big band music with Phil Wilson’s Dues Band, sambas with the Bossa Nova Quartet of saxophonist Allan Rowe, and lounge jazz with Al Natalie’s Tijuana Sounds group. His roommate, Jan Hammer, played keyboards in a strip club, and Abercrombie sat in with him there. He graduated from Berklee in 1967, but he acquired his practical education playing across the musical landscape of 1960s Boston.
Pianist Hal Galper was a busy guy in Boston in 1962. Much of that activity centered around the Stable, the cellar club on Huntington Avenue, where Galper practiced his craft almost every night. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he played with Herb Pomeroy’s big band, while on weekends he worked with Varty Haroutunian’s small groups. On Mondays, he was a regular in trombonist Gene DiStasio’s Quintet, and their music is the subject of today’s post.
In April 1962, everyone knew the Stable had a date with the wrecking ball. The Commonwealth was razing the building to make way for a turnpike on-ramp. The musicians played on, though, and one Monday night, an unknown person captured DiStasio’s Quintet on tape. That recording ended up with Ray Santisi, and is now the fourth installment in my Santisi tapes project. It was Hal Galper, by the way, who replaced Santisi in the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra in 1959.
After transferring the music from the original 1/4-inch tape to a digital format, I sent a copy to Galper, knowing full well that musicians often take a dim view of being asked to listen to the way they played “back then.” But he was game, and in January 2017 we talked by phone about the music and his time in Boston.
There are comebacks, and then there are comebacks. Thirty-four years ago, in June 1981, Miles Davis staged a memorable comeback performance in Boston that ended five years of self-imposed silence. The four-night barrage stood the jazz world on its ear, and although the music was formidable, what made it all so head-turning was that it was such an event.
Miles had been out of the public eye for five years, enduring physical maladies and having little desire to play. But he was ready to go again in 1981, and his group had just recorded a new album, The Man With the Horn, and he was going to play at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York in early July. But Davis wanted a tune-up first, and he wanted to do it in a club. So Davis contacted Fred Taylor, for whom he had worked more than ten times at the Jazz Workshop or Paul’s Mall between 1967 and 1977. Simply put, Davis trusted Taylor.
It’s been four months since I last posted on this blog, and sometimes I get email from readers wondering what’s going on. I didn’t intend to stop writing, but a new project came along and it is taking most of my time—I’m working with Fred Taylor of Scullers Jazz Club on his autobiography. It’s an “as told to” book, and I’m honored to be the one he’s telling it to.
It’s quite a story—the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall, the Great Woods Jazz and Blues Festival, the Harvard Square Theater, the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, Scullers, and hundreds of concerts, benefits, and shows… And of course it’s a story of people, Bostonians as well as national figures in jazz, pop and comedy. There are stories, or parts of stories, in general circulation, for instance regarding Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. But everybody’s in here. Take the name “George.” So far we’ve talked about Wein, Benson, Shearing, Carlin, Winston, Garzone, Coleman, Frazier, and Duke. I suspect we’ll be getting to Russell, Colligan, Schuller and Duvivier.
So here’s the pitch. If you’ve known Fred for a while, or if you’ve worked with him in one of his many ventures, please leave a comment here, or send me a message. Fred’s story isn’t just the story told by Fred, it’s also the stories about Fred that I hear from other people.
Pianist Ray Santisi, who died October 28 at age 81, was a working musician for almost 65 years. He was also a composer and arranger, author, and perhaps most famously, teacher. He joined the Berklee faculty in 1957, and spent 57 years there.
He was also the last surviving Stablemate—the last of a trio of Boston musicians for whom Benny Golson composed the song “Stablemates” in 1955. The others were trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and tenor saxophonist Varty Haroutunian. The three set the pace at the Stable, one of the city’s great jazz rooms in years gone by.
I thought I’d remember Ray today by taking a look at the formative years of his career.
I wrote about the recordings made by the Jaki Byard Quartet at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike in an earlier post, and I’ve finally added an extended track from Volume 2 of Live! to my YouTube channel. I chose “Jaki’s Ballad Medley,” but as you’ll hear, Jaki was joking when he mentioned ballads. For some reason, though, the people at Prestige Records kept “Ballad” in the title.
Byard starts with a bit of his “European Episode,” and then works through “Tea for Two,” “Lover,” his own composition “Strolling Along,” “Cherokee,” and finally Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings.” Drummer Alan Dawson and bassist George Tucker acquit themselves admirably throughout, but the star is Joe Farrell on tenor, with two fine solos.
The recording was made on the night of April 15, 1965—which, as Lennie reminded me, was the night Havlicek stole the ball. You non-Bostonians will just have to follow the link to look that up.
May 30, 1971: Fire Closes Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike
Firefighters broke through the roof to fight the blaze, which was confined mainly to the bar and dressing rooms, but the entire building suffered extensive smoke and water damage.
Just about all of the great jazz clubs described in The Boston Jazz Chronicles or in posts on this blog were inside the Boston city limits—the Savoy, the Stable, Storyville, the Jazz Workshop. But one, a favorite of both performers and listeners, was way up in the suburbs. That was Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike, on the northbound side of Route 1 in West Peabody. On the morning of May 30, 1971, fire struck the club.
“You could say I am down, but not out,” proprietor Lennie Sogoloff told the Globe’s Bill Buchanan later that day. “This club has been my life since the early 50s and to see all the damage was a great shock to me. I just don’t know what direction we’ll take now. It’s something I’ll have to think about.”
May 12 was the start of busy week for Norman Furman, the general manager at Boston’s WHEE radio, 1090 on the AM dial. The owners wanted a new sound, and Furman went to work on that immediately upon his April arrival. On May 12, he had some results.
First, a new deejay was starting that day. Sabby Lewis, the man who personified Boston jazz in the 1940s, would host a one-hour show, six days a week, in the early evening. (Find more on Lewis here, here and here.) “He will be,” announced the Boston Chronicle, “the first colored band leader disc jockey ever in Boston.” Neither the Chronicle nor anyone else said Lewis was the first African-American deejay. He wasn’t. That was Eddy Petty at WVOM. But hiring Lewis demonstrated that Furman, who introduced all-black programming to WLIB in New York City, intended to bring more of that programming to WHEE.
During the week of May 12, the station changed its call letters to WBMS, for “World’s Best Music Station,” its original call when the station first went on the air in 1947. The Boston newspapers carried the announcement on May 19.
Billie Holiday opened her last engagement in Boston on April 20, 1959, at Storyville. For Holiday, who had not worked in Boston for three-and-a-half years, it was a triumphant return.
I believe Holiday first came to the Hub in August 1937 with Basie’s band, singing at the Ritz Roof. She made history here in March 1938 when she joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Roseland-State Ballroom. The 1940s are dotted with Holiday appearances, but Boston was really reintroduced to her in February 1951, during a ten-day engagement at the Latin Quarter.
Boston in 1951 had the Hi-Hat and Storyville competing for jazz talent. Holiday, who had lost her cabaret card, could not work in the New York clubs, so the Boston situation was to her advantage—between 1951 and 1955, she worked week-long engagements at Storyville five times and at the Hi-Hat four. The last was in October 1955, and although she sang at the North Shore Jazz Festival in Lynn in 1957, she wasn’t seen in Boston again until April 1959. On this visit, her accompanist, Mal Waldron, was joined by bassist Champ Jones and drummer Roy Haynes.